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14 September 2016

From classic episodes to edgy pilots and retro revivals, British sitcoms always follow three rules

As the BBC celebrates 60 years of UK television comedy, we unpick what unites every successful series, from Steptoe and Son to The Office.

By James Cooray Smith

This month, all three BBC TV channels are celebrating 60 years of the British television sitcom, year one being dated to the move of Hancock’s Half Hour from radio to television.

As part of the anniversary, BBC One has given us three sequels, and one prequel, to sitcoms of the past, BBC Two five pilots for new series, and BBC Four three remakes of sitcoms that are ostensibly no longer in BBC archives. It’s a good mix: celebrating the past while planning for the future.

Young Hyacinth, prolific English comedy writer Roy Clarke’s second period prequel to one of his own hits, was a straightforward, plausible origin for the characters as millions of Nineties Keeping Up Appearances viewers knew them. Porridge saw series creators Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais tell the story of television’s best-loved inmate Fletcher’s grandson, who is also a recidivist.

In both instances, the cast is new, but the veteran writers’ high level of craft remains evident. Both pieces also move the characters and their “sit” onwards, and thereby avoid being purely nostalgic projects. One by moving back in time, and one by moving forward.

And the revival of Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran’s popular adultery comedy Goodnight Sweetheart – a programme that, at its mid-Nineties peak, routinely drew in 18 million viewers – manages by virtue of its time travel premise to do both simultaneously, while retaining the final version of its original regular cast.

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Are You Being Served? (the revival of which I defended here) is the only sequel not from the series’ original writers (both of whom are deceased) and is, as such, pastiche. It ups the series’ level of innuendo, cleverly rendering it roughly as scandalous as the original in its own day, and there are some lovely performances, particularly from Jason Watkins and Roy Barraclough.

All four are funny, and work well as codas – even the one set before its parent series – and yet all have series potential. (A fifth revival, of Up Pompeii, scripted by the writers of earlier sequel Further Up Pompeii, foundered on a matter of casting. Tip: Get David Tennant.)

Of the new pilots, the best is BBC 2 divorcee comedy starring Robert Webb, Our Ex-Wife (I’m gagging for a series). Of the others, the charming and sharp adoption story The Coopers vs The Rest, and the frantic and slightly rancid Motherland, about dysfunctional parenthood, have a lot to recommend them.

The Johnny Vegas/Joanna Page vehicle Home from Home is likeable, with a nihilistic streak, and We The Jury has the most unusual “sit” and is extremely well-cast – Diane Morgan (Phoenix Nights, Philomena Cunk) features in supporting roles both in this and Motherland, and is outstanding in both.

Four of the five pilots are, to a certain point, about relatively affluent people with relatively young children, and the everyday problems they face. That lack of variety feels like a commissioning error, but again each pilot is strong. I wouldn’t like to be the one deciding which script not to produce.

Of the remakes, one Till Death Us Do Part episode, “A Woman’s Place is in the Home”, is a 1967 script by Johnny Speight. Well-cast, it allowed us to see how complex Speight could make low-stakes domestic strife, with audience’s sympathy seesawing from side to side across its running time.

The other two are remakes of scripts by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, one episode each of Steptoe and Son (1970) and Hancock’s Half Hour (1957). The Steptoe episode, “A Winter’s Tale”, does actually exist, but in poor quality.

It’s fitting that Galton and Simpson should have two programmes in this celebratory selection. While other writers have had comparable successes, Galton and Simpson effectively invented British sitcom.

They first met in hospital in 1948 and started writing comedy together for hospital radio. When they got out, they successfully submitted sketches to BBC radio programmes. When Calling All Forces writer Bob Monkhouse – who had been writing the weekly series for more than a year – finally took a holiday, they were drafted in to finish the series. This brought them into contact with one of its stars, Tony Hancock, for whom they developed a vehicle.

Galton and Simpson thought radio comedy of the time overly reliant on voices and musical interludes. Their idea, as Galton told the Daily Telegraph in 2008, was to do, “a situation comedy, half an hour, with no funny voices, no jokes as such, and a complete storyline with no interruptions by a singer or instrumentalist – which all shows had then”.

British sitcom doesn’t work to a formula, but there are things that bind the best ones together, and they can be traced back to Hancock, and in a refined form, Steptoe and Son.

The first is that the situation contains a genuine threat to our characters.

The second is that those characters would not choose to be together, but are compelled to be.

These two conditions together create what we might term a “pressure cooker situation”.

The third is a character with a massively overinflated sense of themselves.

Run any great UK sitcom through your head. Dad’s Army is set in World War II on England’s southeast coast at a point where the population earnestly believes that a Nazi invasion is imminent. That’s the threat. The Home Guard, a collection of mostly old men, are there out of duty. This creates the pressure. Captain Mainwaring is the character with little self-awareness.

Blackadder Goes Forth is set in another war, and again the threat is violent death. The trenches provide the pressure cooker. General Melchett is both a man without perspective and, in the situation in which the characters are, another form of threat (just as the equally unhinged Elizabeth I is also both in Blackadder II).

Often the threat is poverty, like in Steptoe. Their family is the reason the characters are together despite not wanting to be (and both often try and escape), and Harold is the man with an unrealistic view of himself. Only Fools and Horses barely deviates from this in its early days. Del’s pretensions differ from Harold’s in content, not form. The series later grows beyond this, and allows Rodney a measure of escape that Harold doesn’t achieve until his series’ final scene.

Porridge throws its characters into prison. Prison officer Mackay is both the threat and the character consumed by his own importance. And it’s not difficult to see how Black Books, The Office and so on fit into this.

Significantly, it’s easy to see how it maps onto the most effective of the new pilots shown this month on BBC Two.

British sitcoms have Hancock and Steptoe, and thus Galton and Simpson, in their creative DNA. It’s this, rather than accuracy, which means UK television sitcom history begins with Hancock’s Half Hour.

There were some before it, but they are the pre-history of the form. Pinwright’s Progress, starring James Hayter (the actor whose voice informed Britons that Mr Kipling makes exceedingly good cakes) was broadcast live on the BBC’s (and the nation’s) single television station in 1946-7, and is by any hard definition, the world’s first sitcom. (Although the word “sitcom” was coined in a 1953 BBC memo concerning, yes, Hancock’s Half Hour.)

There is, though, one person who perhaps deserves more credit even than Galton and Simpson for the enduring success of British sitcom: Margaret Shackles. The hospital in which Galton and Simpson met was a sanatorium for patients with tuberculosis, and neither was expected to live. Galton was even given the last rites. Shackles was their doctor there, the year after Pinwright’s Progress had already finished.

Pinwright’s Progress is nearly out of living memory. The work of Galton and Simpson is still with us. As, still, are the men themselves. All thanks to Doctor Margaret Shackles.

Without her, sitcom as we understand it both wouldn’t, and couldn’t, have existed.

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